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CNN Special Reports
Special Report: Donald Trump's Conspiracy Theories. Aired 11p- 12a ET
Aired August 23, 2020 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Could be one of the greatest coups of all time.
They're spying on me.
I'm fighting the Deep State.
This is a conspiracy against, you, the American people, and we cannot let this happen.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST (voice-over): Why does the President of the United States of America live in a world of dark, sinister conspiracies?
PROFESSOR RUSSELL MUIRHEAD, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE, CO-AUTHOR, "A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SAYING": He gravitates instinctively to conspiratorial understandings of the world.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE ATLANTIC: The world actually makes sense if you just look behind the curtain.
TRUMP: It could be a plot.
GOLDBERG: There are dark malevolent forces behind the curtain.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Lurking behind that curtain, he sees political enemies.
Some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.
Joe Biden and his son are corrupt.
Hillary Clinton, she's a world-class liar.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He sees a plot to steal an election.
PROFESSOR CAROL ANDERSON, EMORY UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, "ONE PERSON, NO VOTE": "Voter fraud! Voter fraud! Here's the evidence."
TRUMP: This whole election is being rigged.
ANDERSON: It's a lie.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And it's dangerous.
MUIRHEAD: A burn-it-down strategy. It doesn't just defeat an opponent. It actually damages democracy.
ALEX JONES, HOST, THE ALEX JONES SHOW, CONSPIRACY THEORIST: COVID-19 is a hoax.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump has conspiracy theory allies.
JONES: Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur.
GOLDBERG: It's totally nuts.
(CROWD CHANTS: TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!)
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Even crazier, the conspiracies of Trump fans.
MUIRHEAD: The QAnon conspiracy.
GOLDBERG: Donald Trump is the hero being thwarted by a ring of pedophiles and child traffickers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump is part of the Q-team.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): How did we get here?
TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: This is the first time in our history that a conspiracist holds the highest office in the land.
GOLDBERG: This is not something we've seen in, in functioning democracy.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A democracy that will soon elect a President.
GOLDBERG: This is the first time I can remember, having a fear or anxiety that a sitting President, if he loses a free and fair election won't leave.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Good evening, I am Fareed Zakaria.
Let me begin with a confession. This is not the kind of topic I usually tackle. And I am concerned about repeating false information. But this subject is urgent, because the conspiracy theories circulating now are dangerous, and the President of the United States is trafficking in them.
When Donald Trump tells us elections are rigged, Obamagate is the biggest scandal in history, some know these ideas are wholly false. But others are less certain, especially when they hear a story full of details that seems to explain everything.
Polls show that up to 50 percent of Americans have believed at least one of these conspiracy theories. This is a story of just how destructive they have become, not just to the people they target, but also to the very foundations of our democracy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Why doesn't he give his birth certificate?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Donald Trump's rise to power began with a conspiracy theory.
TRUMP: His relatives don't even know which hospital he was born in.
This is the hottest thing out there. This hat you can't get them.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): As he tested the waters to run for the White House--
TRUMP: People have birth certificates. He doesn't have a birth certificate.
If he doesn't, it's one of the greatest scams in the history of politics.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --Trump pedaled birtherism like a traveling salesman.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: He was born in Hawaii. Why are you going through all of this, Donald?
TRUMP: Well a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.
BLITZER: How can you say that if this - if this--
TRUMP: A lot of people. Now, you won't report it, Wolf.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It was a political win-all.
TRUMP: 55 percent of the Republicans believe in this issue.
GOLDBERG: He rode it into the White House.
MUIRHEAD: He's got brilliant instincts and brilliant intuitions.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Donald Trump understood exactly how to tap into an ugly racial undercurrent.
PROFESSOR RANDALL KENNEDY, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: The idea of whether he was born in the United States, I think, that's a metaphor. Is he one of us?
R. KENNEDY: Answer, no.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): With the birtherism conspiracy theory, Donald Trump could send a racist message without saying the race part out loud.
GOLDBERG: Your country was stolen from you by Barack Hussein Obama.
TRUMP: Barack Hussein Obama.
R. KENNEDY: Black-African father. Barack Hussein. That's enough.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump uses conspiracy theories, as weapons, against his political opponents.
TRUMP: Very suspicious situation.
I'm fighting the Deep State.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But there has been no bigger Trump target than Hillary Clinton.
TRUMP: The most corrupt person ever to seek the Presidency of the United States.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The darkest Clinton conspiracy theory has a huge following on the internet. Trump and his allies have promoted it, even as it has grown increasingly toxic.
This is Edgar Maddison Welch. He is driving from his North Carolina home to Washington D.C., recording a message to his two young daughters.
EDGAR MADDISON WELCH, SCREENWRITER: I love you all more than anything in this world.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He is preparing to risk his life to save children he doesn't even know.
EDGAR MADDISON WELCH: Like I've always told you, we have a duty to protect people who can't protect themselves. To do for people who can't do for themselves.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): You might consider Welch a good man.
EDGAR MADDISON WELCH: I hope you understand that one day.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But this mission of mercy was actually a dangerous delusion. Welch fell prey to a twisted conspiracy theory, called Pizzagate. He actually believed that Hillary Clinton and other Washington Elites were running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C.
GOLDBERG: Just because it's crazy, doesn't mean that people won't believe it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In addition to the AR-15, Welch was carrying a handgun, and a shotgun was found in his car.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He burst into a crowded restaurant. Terrified customers ran for their lives. But there were no abused children. Not even a basement. No one was hurt. Welch went to prison. The original source of all this? A leaked e-mail to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's Campaign Chief. It was from his brother. And it said, simply, "Would love to get a pizza."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pizza is a well-known pedophile code word that actually has been used by law enforcement to arrest online sexual predators of children.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pizzagate is real.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Now, disturbingly, teenagers have grown obsessed with Pizzagate. They believe celebrities have joined Hillary Clinton to abuse children.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You need to search for what they don't want us paying attention to, child trafficking.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The social media site, TikTok, popular with teenagers, has logged more than 80 million views for posts with the Pizzagate hashtag, according to "The New York Times."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are Q.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Pizzagate began in 2016. But, in the last few years, it has grown into an even bigger conspiracy theory called QAnon.
GOLDBERG: When nonsense becomes actually dangerous is when people believe it to be true.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A mysterious character or characters called Q, supposedly high-up in U.S. Intelligence, give followers hints about deep state conspirators who are out to destroy Donald Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump is the hero of the QAnon following.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is actually like a Christ-like figure, who will save the country and save the world.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Save the world from the Deep State, from Liberals, from pedophiles.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you believe there's a ring of high-profile politicians, who are kidnapping and sacrificing children?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do believe that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But everything he's posts about child pedophilia, and what's been going on in our country, and who's doing it, is coming to light.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump is part of the Q-team. From what we understand, Q+ is his handle, and he does a lot of posts and he's part of this.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Crowds of QAnon believers show up at Trump rallies.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, my name is Tammy (ph). And I'm a family doctor.
Truth, Q is about getting to the truth, by educating people about the truth about what's really going on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are anonymous. But they're all on the same track, looking for the truth.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're all QAnon. All of us.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Getting to the truth is a QAnon theme, even though its beliefs are preposterous fiction.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The motorcade moves into the Downtown area. Death is six minutes away.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The biggest conspiracy theory of them all, who really killed JFK, has now become part of QAnon.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: JFK Jr. is alive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: JFK Jr. is in protective custody because they tried to kill him, just like they killed his father.
JOHN F. KENNEDY JR., SON OF PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: My father stood before you.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The belief is that somehow, the late JFK Jr. is alive, and helping Trump clean up the deep state.
GOLDBERG: They're not tethered to the truth. So, it's very easy to make up more and more elaborate stories.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): QAnon has morphed from conspiracy theory--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some call it "The great awakening."
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --into an actual political movement of sorts.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've all been gathering online and talking together as Americans and uniting and--
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You think it's maybe just it makes you comfortable talking with other frustrated sometimes angry people.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Yes.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): What is Donald Trump's connection to QAnon? Meet Radio Host, Michael Lebron. He is one of QAnon's chief pushers.
MICHAEL LEBRON, RADIO PERSONALITY: If you have not even ventured initially into the QAnon phenomenon, do you have any idea of what you are missing?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): This is QAnon pusher, Michael Lebron, in the Oval Office with the President.
TRUMP: Eric Trump, everybody.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Eric Trump, the President's son, posted this Instagram. He is promoting QAnon, even using one of the slogans, "Where We Go 1, We Go All!"
TUCHMAN: You're wearing a shirt that says QWWG1WGA. What does that mean?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It means "Where We Go 1, We Go All!"
MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: "Where We Go 1, We Go All!"
(CROWD: "WHERE WE GO 1, WE GO ALL!")
ZAKARIA (voice-over): General Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor, whom Trump has lavishly praised as a "Fine man wronged by the justice system"--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give it to Mueller...
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --took the QAnon oath on the Fourth of July with family and friends.
FLYNN: God bless America!
(CROWD: "GOD BLESS AMERICA!")
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Flynn's lawyers tell CNN that the oath he took was not connected to QAnon.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where We Go 1.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But, in fact, that oath is universally recognized inside the Q Movement. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Where We Go 1."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "We Go All!"
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Where We Go 1, We Go All!"
ZAKARIA (voice-over): President Donald Trump frequently retweets QAnon accounts.
On the Fourth of July, the same day Michael Flynn took his oath, while the Coronavirus was surging to record levels, all over the country, the President retweeted QAnon accounts 14 times.
No one is sure how many people are in the group. But according to the "Washington Post" about 600,000 people have voted for QAnon-connected political candidates. Media Matters has documented at least 46 of them are in the current election cycle.
MARJORIE GREENE, GOP CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I'm Marjorie Greene, and I approve this ad.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Marjorie Greene faces an August run-off in her effort to win a Congressional seat from Northwest Georgia.
GREENE: Q has put out there that many high-level officials will soon be arrested. Is it going to be true that the child pedophilia and the Elites in the Washington D.C., is that what we're really going to see come out? Is it going to be satanic worship?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Marjorie Greene is favored to win that seat in the House of Representatives.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding all of this is why? Why would anyone believe any of these conspiracy theories?
MUIRHEAD: It's so unsettling, and I think, quite authentically, terrifying, to live in a world that we feel we can't control.
GOLDBERG: Conspiracism becomes very, very seductive, very, very attractive because it explains that the world is arrayed against you and, this is the important part, it's not your fault.
TRUMP: Not my fault I inherited this mess, but we're fixing it.
Hey, it's not my fault. I didn't put us there.
No, I don't take responsibility at all.
GOLDBERG: It externalizes blame. That's what QAnon does for people.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And it seems to give its followers a kind of emotional support.
MUIRHEAD: It creates an explanation that comforts, and consoles, and there's always this unnamed, unseen, deep state, that is actually responsible for everything.
GOLDBERG: QAnon provides people with the psychological comfort they need. What it does for Donald Trump is that it provides the fear that keeps his base motivated.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Several studies done by scientists from the United Kingdom and Poland, found that conspiracy-minded people have a strong need to feel better or smarter than others. They are, in other words, narcissistic, if that sounds familiar.
GOLDBERG: I don't think this is the most controversial thing in the world stage that he is, even by the standards of American politicians, unusually narcissistic.
TRUMP: I alone can fix it.
People would say I'm the super genius of all time.
The one that matters is me.
(CROWD: TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!)
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Is it possible that Trump just uses conspiracy theories to gin up his base? Maybe, but.
MUIRHEAD: He has a conspiracist mindset. He gravitates instinctively, naturally, inescapably to conspiratorial understandings of the world.
TRUMP: There's something going on that we don't know about.
A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign. It could be a plot. I mean I don't want to think in terms of conspiracy. But it could be a plot.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump's conspiracy theories resonate deeply with his voters. And that raises the most troubling aspect of this story.
GOLDBERG: Our immune system has been weakened to conspiracy thinking.
MUIRHEAD: This is why it's so dangerous.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Many Americans are vulnerable to conspiracy theories because they don't trust government, officials or institutions. Listen to what this QAnon follower says.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can all admit that pretty much everybody knows the government is corrupt. Q, to me, is just showing that it's a lot more corrupt than we thought.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Pew Research shows America's trust has been dropping for decades. Just look at the last 20 years. By the time Donald Trump was elected President, belief and faith in democracy had reached an all-time low. Trust in the media took a similar plunge, and Donald Trump knows it.
TRUMP: And just remember what you're seeing and what you are reading is not what's happening.
GOLDBERG: What's important is to get them to disbelieve everything.
MUIRHEAD: This is the way in which hard demagoguery can destroy democracy.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): All of this, as we face a Presidential election.
ANDERSON: "Voter fraud! Voter fraud!"
TRUMP: The most corrupt election in the history of our country.
ANDERSON: It's a lie.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Coming up next, the biggest conspiracy threat of all.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The sort of thing I never imagined would be possible in the United States of America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, 44TH U.S. PRESIDENT: All right.
Tell me when you're ready.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A few days after the 2016 election.
OBAMA: Well, I just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with President-elect Trump.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): An obscure Right-wing operative named Gregg Phillips tweeted a bombshell. Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST, CUOMO PRIME TIME: Can you prove, right now, that 3 million people voted illegally?
GREGG PHILLIPS, FOUNDER, VOTESTAND: Yes.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But Phillips, a voter fraud watchdog, was cagey about showing any evidence.
CUOMO: Do you have the proof? PHILLIPS: Yes.
CUOMO: Will you provide it?
CUOMO: Can I have it?
PHILLIPS: No. CUOMO: Why?
PHILLIPS: We're going to release everything to the public.
PHILLIPS: As soon as we get done with the checks.
CUOMO: Wait, hold on, hold on. So you're not done checking it yet?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Questions about a possible recount--
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In fact, when Phillips made his outrageous claim.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Recount votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): States had not even certified their election results.
PHILLIPS: We're not going to make a mistake. We're going to do this.
CUOMO: But that's going to--
PHILLIPS: We're doing it.
CUOMO: But you already accused them.
PHILLIPS: Look, I'm not a politician. I'm just a guy.
JONES: Millions of dead people voting, millions of illegals voting.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Then Alex Jones, the notorious Conspiracy Theorist, who said the U.S. government staged 9/11, picked up the story.
JONES: Donald J. Trump didn't just win the Electoral College. He also clearly won the popular vote.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And after that story ran, President-elect Trump tweeted for the first time, that he won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.
Gregg Phillips still won't show us any evidence.
TRUMP: Illegal immigrants voting.
Illegal immigrants are voting.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Just like that--
TRUMP: We don't want non-citizen voters.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --a voter fraud conspiracy theory was born.
ANDERSON: "Voter fraud! Voter fraud! Here's the evidence." It's a lie.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump has made an astounding number of completely unsubstantiated voter fraud claims over the years. As early as the 2012 election, he tweeted that President Obama's win was a total sham.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): God bless the Great State of Iowa.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In the 2016 primaries, he accused Ted Cruz of stealing Iowa and Marco Rubio of rigging Florida.
TRUMP: New Hampshire was taken away.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He said there were busloads of out-of-state voters who stole the State of New Hampshire.
TRUMP: People that have died 10 years ago are still voting.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): "Nearly 2 million dead people voted for Hillary Clinton."
TRUMP: Tens of millions of mail-in ballots.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And in 2020--
TRUMP: Will they be forged?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --according to our President--
TRUMP: Will they be stolen from mailboxes.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --mail-in ballots will be riddled with fraud.
TRUMP: Will they be taken from the mailmen and the mailwomen?
ANDERSON: It's based on a lie. It's a big magical trick. But it's lethal to American democracy.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Voter fraud has been investigated ad nauseam by academics and governments, Republicans and Democrats. Proven cases are less common than someone being struck by lightning.
ANDERSON: From 2000 to 2014, in 1 billion votes cast, there were 31 cases of voter impersonation fraud. That's not massive. That's not rampant.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Voter fraud is virtually non-existent because it doesn't make sense for people to risk it. It's unlikely to swing an election and the penalties are severe.
PROFESSOR RICHARD L. HASEN, AUTHOR, "ELECTION MELTDOWN": Voter fraud is a felony. So, that's a big disincentive.
TRUMP: They even want to try to rig the election.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But thanks to Trump's constant repetition--
TRUMP: The system was rigged.
That election is going to be rigged.
First of all, it's rigged.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --the voter fraud lie has become the truth for many Americans.
(CROWD: USA! USA!)
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In one poll, nearly half said that voter fraud occurred often. Among Trump supporters, over two-thirds said it happened a lot.
ANDERSON: The beauty of a lie is if you say it over and over, and with conviction, it sounds like the truth.
TRUMP: We have to protect the integrity of the vote and our voters.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump doubled down on his conspiracy theories when he formed a Presidential Commission to investigate voter fraud.
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Criticized as a misguided effort to prove the unprovable.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): After few months of bureaucratic blundering--
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, ANDERSON COOPER 360: One Senior White House Adviser telling CNN, quote, "It was a poop show." They used a different word.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --it ended in disgrace.
ANDERSON: In that Commissions report, when you get to the section marked "Voter Fraud," the pages are blank.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But the voter fraud lie lives on.
TRUMP: We're not going to lose. The only way we can lose is if cheating goes on.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Voter fraud conspiracy theories have been around long before Donald Trump. THOR HEARNE, LARSON O'BRIEN LLP, PARTNER: Vote fraud threatens the very integrity of our process.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In the 2000s, some Republicans began spinning tales of widespread voter fraud.
KARL ROVE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: There are many ways to jimmy the system.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There was growing concern in the Party about the nation's demographics.
OBAMA: This is your victory.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): That more people of color who traditionally voted Democrat were going to the polls.
MUIRHEAD: Certain Republican elites came to believe that the Republican Party had an interest in depressing turnout. And that's when they invented the fiction of voter fraud.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Requiring people to show photo ID in order to vote.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Some in the Party used the myth of rampant voter fraud--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pushing more voters out of the ballot box.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --to justify new voting restrictions--
VIVIETTE APPLEWHITE, PLAINTIFF: I just think it's terrible, because there's so many people that don't have ID and they're not going to be able to vote.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --that made it harder for Black Americans to vote.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., AFRICAN-AMERICAN MINISTER & ACTIVIST: We are ready to march on ballot boxes.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A shameful echo--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are ordered to disperse.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --of the Jim Crow South.
BLITZER: We're taking a very close look at Wisconsin right now.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In 2016, these measures had a real impact.
BLITZER: Donald Trump continues to maintain his lead of about 90,000 votes.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Tens of thousands of people were deterred from voting in Wisconsin because of that State's ID Law.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: The question then is, are there other Democratic votes out there somewhere? It's just not enough.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And Black voter turnout plummeted.
BLITZER: CNN now projects that Donald Trump will carry the State of Wisconsin.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump won the State by less than 23,000 ballots.
ANDERSON: Voter fraud doesn't change an election result. Voter suppression does.
TRUMP: Millions and millions of ballots.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Trump's doubling down on his ballot box conspiracy theories in 2020.
TRUMP: Will they be counterfeited by groups inside our nation?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): From rigged mail-in ballots.
TRUMP: Will they be counterfeited by the millions by foreign powers?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To votes being air-mailed from China.
(CROWD: TRUMP! TRUMP!)
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There's growing fear that Trump's disinformation campaign will cast doubt on the outcome of the election. Democrats and Republicans are gaming out worst-case scenarios.
JOE BIDEN (D) PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: This president is going to try to steal this election.
TRUMP: This will be, in my opinion, the most corrupt election in the history of our country.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Donald Trump may be saving his most dangerous conspiracy theory for last.
MUIRHEAD: I think, of all the conspiracies, this one is the one I worry about the most.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JONES: It's all coming up on this live global Sunday transmission.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): While this may look like your average cable news show, it is anything but.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leading a frontal assault on the lies of the New World Order.
JONES: I don't like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin frogs gay!
The globalists are filling our water with radioactive isotopes.
They believe they are possessed by entities, basically, space aliens.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): This is Alex Jones, Host and Founder of InfoWars, a leading conspiracy talk show and website.
JONES: Hillary and Obama want to make you poor and pathetic.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): He screams and rants on air.
JONES: They hate you. They hate prosperity.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Spewing venomous hate.
JONES: They hate God! They hate children! And God damn them to hell!
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can kiss him. Give him a kiss.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And he has also been a principal news source for the president.
JONES: It is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word- for-word hear Trump say it two days later.
His real name is Barry Soetoro.
TRUMP: He was born Barry Soetoro. Somewhere along the line, he changed his name.
JONES: I think she's going to show up and - on drugs, though. She's going to be blacked out.
TRUMP: I think we should take a drug test prior to the debate.
MUIRHEAD: To have conspiracism move into the White House, and then have a President welcome it, amplify it, recognize it, utterly unprecedented.
JONES: Donald, thank you for joining us.
TRUMP: Thank you, Alex.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Donald Trump first aligned himself with Jones in 2015.
TRUMP: Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.
GOLDBERG: Donald Trump basically said, to Alex Jones, "I love your work." It's totally nuts.
JONES: The Democrats are the KKK.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): So nuts, it begs the question, how did we get here?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We love you, Alex Jones.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): To what some are calling the InfoWars Presidency.
TRUMP: Alex Jones, he was a nice guy actually.
JONES: And I think they're getting our Gods.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): You may remember Alex Jones for spreading the most grotesque lie imaginable.
JONES: Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Since claiming that the massacre of 20 first graders and six faculty members was all a hoax, Jones has been ordered to pay at least $100,000 in legal fees.
JONES: Basically thought everything was staged.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In one deposition, Jones testified that a form of psychosis had made him believe these preposterous claims.
MUIRHEAD: That's what Alex Jones does. That's the world he lives in. It's a world in which there's no true and false, where anything can be believed, except the official account of anything.
JONES: Buying this product--
ZAKARIA (voice-over): All these lies have proven to be a lucrative business for Jones.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Introducing Cell Force.
JONES: This stuff is incredible.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Available at infowarsstore.com.
JONES: I just can't express how serious the situation is.
ANDREW MARANTZ, AUTHOR, "ANTISOCIAL": And part of the way he has been able to do that is by continually scaring his audience into telling them that disaster is approaching and then selling them products to mitigate that disaster.
JONES: If you don't buy the products, we will not be able to fund this operation. ZAKARIA (voice-over): His online store sells everything from freeze dryers to survival gear.
JONES: We have the full My Patriot Supply. This stuff kills the whole SARS Corona family at point-blank range.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Most recently, the FDA ordered Jones to stop selling fake cures for COVID-19.
JONES: It kills every virus.
MUIRHEAD: There's money to be made in this.
JONES: I only promote what I believe in.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): It is this conspiracy-riddled path that connected Donald Trump to Alex Jones.
JONES: My audience, I'd say 90 percent supports you.
MUIRHEAD: Trump knows where his bread is buttered, and he makes his peace with someone like Alex Jones to keep power and to win in the next election.
JONES: Come here and hear President Trump speak!
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Both men understood how to reach an audience and how to propel themselves into the mainstream.
TRUMP: I doubt I'd be here if it weren't for social media.
I am able to go bing, bing, bing, and I take care of it. The other way I'd never be able to get the word out.
JONES: It's an information war.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Like Trump, Jones used all kinds of media to push his agenda for years.
JONES: You machine-gunned a bunch of men, women and children.
MARANTZ: He migrated from public-access TV--
JONES: You idiot, it's real. It's real.
MARANTZ: --to terrestrial radio, to the internet.
JONES: I have listened to you for 30 years.
MARANTZ: That unrestrained freedom, combined with these algorithms that are designed to amplify whatever is most eye-catching, and most shocking, meant that he was just perfectly adapted to the internet.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But that all came to a crashing halt in 2018.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, and LinkedIn have all removed material from Jones.
MUIRHEAD: The de-platforming of Jones--
JONES: Google is evil! Google is evil!
MUIRHEAD: --especially by YouTube, it diminished him.
JONES: I don't get a day in court. They lie about me.
MARANTZ: His viewership fell by about half.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The President himself has also been policed for promoting violence and spreading false claims. Twitter has flagged several of his tweets over accuracy and copyright issues.
While we may never know whether Jones or Trump truly believe in the crazy conspiracies they've spread--
NAFTALI: This is the first time in our history that a conspiracist holds the highest office in the land.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --Presidential Historian, Tim Naftali, says what happens next is up to us.
NAFTALI: Will the American public embrace it a second time? The test is in November.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We caught them.
This is actually treason.
They were spying on our campaign.
It was treason.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Long before Donald Trump became Conspiracist-in- Chief, there was Joseph McCarthy.
JOSEPH MCCARTHY, FORMER AMERICAN SENATOR: Even if there were only one Communist in the State Department, that would still be one Communist too many.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): In the early 1950s, the Republican Senator accused all kinds of Americans of treason, largely without any evidence. It was what Joe McCarthy called "A vast Communist conspiracy."
MCCARTHY: This Committee's activities may well determine whether this nation will live or die.
ANDERSON: What he did was to drum up this incredible fear.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, they are traitors to America.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are Communists! They are Communists!
ANDERSON: But they could not find, as he said, a conspiracy so immense, they could not find it because it wasn't there.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): At the height of the Cold War, many Americans had legitimate fears about Communism.
ANDERSON: In 1949, you had the Soviet Union explode a nuclear device.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Then, Communists overthrew the Chinese government.
ANDERSON: Overnight, now you have 500 million new Communists in the world. It felt like America was losing. How could America be losing?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Enter Joseph McCarthy, who claimed he had the answer, a list of 205 employees in the State Department, whom he said were "Known Communists."
ANDERSON: That simple answer just was like, "Boom!"
NAFTALI: He didn't have the goods to prove this monster conspiracy.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): McCarthy presided over hearings that were little more than trial by accusation.
MCCARTHY: Senator, would you like to hear this? It's about you.
ANDERSON: He would just badger witnesses, where they wouldn't have a chance to answer. He wasn't about nuance. He was about got you.
MCCARTHY: Answer that yes or no. Do you know this man?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): McCarthy made baseless charges against the Truman Administration, including a man who served as the Secretary of State and Defense.
ANDERSON: George C. Marshall, a man who helped defeat the Nazis.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): A venerated five-star General who had helped orchestrate the allied victory in World War II.
Republicans didn't like McCarthy's tactics. But most didn't speak out because they were afraid of losing their base. Sound familiar?
By 1952, Republicans had been out of power for two decades.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The American people have spoken with a resounding voice at the polls. Victory is here.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): McCarthy helped win back the White House and both Houses of Congress.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): With a bigger platform, he became even more reckless. He went after the Army, claiming it had been infiltrated by Communists.
MCCARTHY: You are not - you're not fooling anyone at all.
STUART SYMINGTON, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR: Senator?
MCCARTHY: I'm sure of that.
SYMINGTON: Senator? Let me tell you something.
KARL MUNDT, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR: The Chair believes that--
SYMINGTON: The American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling anyone either.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Senator was called out as a bully in front of 20 million viewers.
JOSEPH WELCH, ARMY LAWYER: You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Finally Congress said, "Enough."
NAFTALI: The Republican Senate censured one of their own.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The conspiratorial world view and political tactics, however, would live on.
MCCARTHY: This fight to expose those who would destroy this nation will go on and on.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Nearly one decade later--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --a tragic event became the catalyst for a new wave of conspiracies.
MUIRHEAD: To this day, people think, how does a lone gunman, successfully assassinate the most protected person on the face of the Earth?
ZAKARIA (voice-over): There was plenty of evidence linking Lee Harvey Oswald to the shooting. But America didn't buy the official story.
NAFTALI: The idea that one person, alone, without a government or a conspiracy behind them, could change the course of history, seemed impossible to believe, implausible.
LEE HARVEY OSWALD, ALLEGED ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I emphatically deny these charges.
I'm just a patsy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: --shoot the President.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Then, only two days later, he was fatally shot on live television by a nightclub owner, Jack Ruby.
NAFTALI: Many Americans, when Jack Ruby killed Oswald, began to believe something was amiss.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): The week that President Kennedy was killed, a Gallup poll showed that the majority of Americans believed it was a conspiracy. The Kennedy Assassination immediately became a national obsession.
By the mid-70s, the percentage of Americans who believed it was a conspiracy, sky-rocketed to over 80 percent. Americans had seen the release of the Pentagon Papers, the escalation in Vietnam, Watergate.
NAFTALI: A series of misfortunes for this country, and you begin to wonder, "Did it all start with the JFK assassination?"
FRANK CHURCH, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR: Has enabled the CIA to use this poison--
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Senate investigations into secret government programs opened the door to even more conspiracy theories.
NAFTALI: The more Americans mistrusted government, the more they believed that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by a secret group of officials, who did not like his policies.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): Soon an entire cottage industry was created around the JFK assassination, books, board games, video games and, of course, a Hollywood blockbuster.
JIM GARRISON, FICTIONAL CHARACTER PLAYED BY KEVIN COSTNER, "JFK": One of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people, we've come to know it as the "Magic Bullet Theory."
NAFTALI: Great cinematography! Terrible history!
ZAKARIA (voice-over): But it was the internet age of the 90s and 2000s that helped rocket a conspiracy theorist right to the presidency.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: It is an undeniable fact the President of the United States is an ardent fan of conspiracy theories. He repeats them, retweets them, and embraces the crazy people who promulgate them.
JONES: Islamic-Arabic script on it.
ZAKARIA: In doing so, he is bringing together three different strands of history in a profoundly dangerous way. First, we all share some basic propensity to believe in these kinds of theories. Why? Well human beings can't stand uncertainty. We want to know why things happen.
We used to rely on religion and magic to explain things. After the enlightenment from many, that faith was transferred to science. But still, there's so much we don't understand. The world is, in William James' phrase, "A blooming, buzzing confusion." So, we want to find ways to make sense of it. Ascribe meaning and assign blame. In particular, when we confront huge events with great consequences, like John F. Kennedy's assassination--
ZAKARIA (on camera): --we can't accept that they might have happened because of a small cause, or single gunman, or chants, or confusion, or an accident. There must have been a cause commensurate with the outcome. So, we search for that larger grander conspiracy.
The second strand is particular to America. America has always had a rich history of conspiracy theories, what one Historian called the "Paranoid Style in American Politics."
It's easy to understand how this developed in a vast country with new immigrants coming from everywhere, often living on sparsely-populated land, far from centers of power, with a strong anti-statist tradition.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Duck and cover.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): And when people felt threatened or in danger, say at the height of the Cold War--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: --carry nuclear weapons.
ZAKARIA (voice-over): --the theories get more alarmists. That's why the pandemic has given rise to a new wave of conspiracy theories that explained how something so devastating must have had behind it an evil genius.
The third strand is even more specific to Donald Trump. For people who believe that they are at the center of the world, narcissists, conspiracy theories are especially compelling.
You are so important. The world is arrayed against you. If something goes wrong, of course, it was not your fault, but rather dark and deep forces that plot against you. And Trump has decided that there are vast and powerful forces that plot against him daily. (END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: They include his own bureaucrats, reporters, urban elites, Minority activists. If he were to lose this election, he has already set in motion conspiracy theories that will claim it was because of voter fraud, or mail-in ballot irregularities, or the work of the Chinese Communist Party.
But, in doing so, Trump is taking an axe to American democracy and a wrecking ball to the workings of the American Constitution. America's election of 1800 was an historic moment for the world because, for the first time, after a contest at the ballot box, political power changed hands from one Party to another, peacefully. That is America's legacy to the world and it has endured for 220 years.
But now, by creating doubts about the 2020 election, by setting up possible obstacles to that peaceful transfer of power, Donald Trump is doing something more insidious, more dangerous than anything he has done as President, so far.
I'm Fareed Zakaria. Thank you for watching.